(Mason, Oh.) – Nothing beats the excitement and anticipation of the early rounds of a professional tennis tournament. That’s certainly true of this year’s Western and Southern Open, where all 112 of the entrants in both the men’s and women’s 56-player draw are locked and loaded for battle. Throw out the qualifiers and the wild card entries, and you’ve got 80 of the top-ranked tennis players in the world gathered all in one place. But beware—wait just a couple of days and half the field will be long gone. If you really want to capitalize on a “Big Five sighting” up close and personal, you better make your move right now!
Just like the most sought-after animals on an African safari, big-name sightings at this year’s tournament are still a very big deal. I’m game for the big hunt. Who are the “Big Five” you ask? The top four are easy to name: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Serena Williams. The fifth and final slot could arguably be filled by Andy Murray—making an unexpectedly quick comeback after his nearly career-ending hip surgery in January—or someone like Maria Sharapova just because she’s…well, Maria Sharapova.
The former “Big Four” of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray are scheduled to compete together in a singles draw for the first time since January’s Australian Open. Murray received a wild card entry while the other three were granted the top three tournament seeds. I can’t believe my good fortune. Federer, Djokovic, and Murray are all scheduled for round table discussions in the media room downstairs, so I’m hoping to bag a quick hat trick within a couple of hours of my arrival. As this column went to press, Nadal and Serena were still in Canada competing in their respective Rogers Cup finals, so it’s questionable whether they’ll even make an appearance.
Before I fire up my digital recorder and cell phone camera, I see that Sharapova is practicing on one of the outer courts. I quickly mosey on over and see that a large crowd has already gathered several rows deep around the fence behind her. At 32 years old, the owner of 36 career titles and 5 Majors is a bit over the hill by tennis standards, but she still commands a bevy of gawkers. Still lithe and lean, the former No. 1-ranked player maintains her usual sense of elegance in motion—a well-choreographed symphony of long legs, toned arms, and flowing hair that proves to be immensely intriguing. I get as close to the court as possible and snap a couple of action shots. With Maria, it’s hard to get a bad picture.
The round table sessions are weird but awesome. I’m literally elbow-to-elbow with the greatest players to have ever played the game. They’re not as imposing in real life—more tanned in person…and skinnier too. Most of the discussion centers around their new roles on the ATP player council. To be honest, the conversation’s kind of boring to me. Plus, Roger, Novak, and Andy all like to talk. Their answers are agonizingly long and drawn out, so it’s hard to get your questions in. There’s not much talk about the game of tennis itself.
As his allotted time ticks down, Andy Murray is finally asked about whether he thinks Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic will be challenged by any of the younger up-and-coming players.
“It will take an extraordinary effort for someone to beat them right now,” said the three-time Grand Slam tournament winner and two-time Olympic champion. “I don’t see it happening in this Slam or the next few Slams. Let’s say (for the next) 18 months—what’s that, January 2021?
I chime in on that same line of questioning by asking Roger what he thinks. How many of those remaining Grand Slams does he hope to capture?
“I hope all,” said the greatest player of all time with his signature beady-eyed grin. “But I doubt it. Look, they (the younger NextGenATP players) will be challenging us for sure. The question is who can run through all three of us…especially when we’re all injury free. There’s no guarantee there. We’re all over thirty years old. Now that we’re all in great shape and playing very well recently, it’s easy to talk like this again. But you never know if it’s going to last to be quite honest. But they’re definitely knocking on the door which is very encouraging.”
Hey, I’m encouraged. I’ve been here two hours and have already encountered four of the “Big Five.” I’m feeling it for sure—you better stick with me. Can’t’ wait to see what unfolds tomorrow.
Dr. John Huang is lead columnist for Sports View America. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.